I know we don’t pay the best

No shit. Do tell Mr. Wonka about how forty cents isn’t worth what it was at Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. Maybe he can secure enterprise grant funding from the state to hire the local homebrew junkies for his new chocolate factory and poach your blueberry pickers as well. Wouldn’t that be rich?

At least Mother-in-Law sometimes recognizes that she’s paying an uncompetitive piecerate. This demonstrates some insight into her own business’s condition. At other times, she just threatens to fire us. She pulled this shit again this afternoon, threatening to replace the whole crew. She threatened to send us home right after lunch since our output was dropping from morning to afternoon, as if any of us would consider a shortened workday a cruel and unusual punishment; if nothing else, it would mean two or three fewer hours of having to listen to her, and the two or three hottest hours of the workday at that. When we got back to the weigh station tent, there was a handwritten sign on the table, “HIRING PICKERS.” At the time, I was taken aback and thought that she was actually serious about replacing us, or at least augmenting the existing crew, but it’s past eight in the evening now and the company still hasn’t put up another help wanted ad on Craigslist. This means that MiL is bluffing us again. She probably put up the sign in order to shame the younger pickers before their parents. She has already berated her fastest picker, an adult and a real class act, in front of his mother when she came to pick him up, and she called another picker at home at 8:30 pm to berate him over the phone. Both of these harangues, if memory serves, were over underripe or mushy fruit.

If I ever have an employer do that to a child of mine, or, God help her, to me, I’ll tell her to shut the fuck up. Lately there’s been a proliferation of strident complaints about teenage job applicants inappropriately using their parents for juice in the hiring process, and these complaints are at least as valid as they are shrill, but what MiL has been doing is even worse. She’s provoking open insubordination by stirring up trouble between her employees and their parents. She drew the mother of one of her most mature, well-adjusted employees into the fray of a stupid dispute over imperfect picking. This employee is much, much sloppier than I am, but he knows it and doesn’t take the least bit of offense at being reminded, and if what MiL wants is poundage, he’s bringing in the fucking poundage, boss. He picked 291 pounds the other day; the most I’ve picked in a day is 93. The packinghouse crew has to sort more garbage out of his haul, and personally, I’d be ashamed to turn in so much bad fruit, but management is asking for exactly what he’s giving them by paying us all such a low piecerate.

They’d get even worse if they hired Mexican crews on piecerate. Holy shit they’d be steamed to see the harvest then. I heard something to the effect that they tried Mexicans on piecerate once and immediately thought better of it. Maybe that story was about another grower; I was listening from a few rows over and didn’t catch all of it. I do, however, know that this is a huge problem with wine grape pickers, who give growers a head start on their primary pruning by dropping whole spurs into the totes. That isn’t supposed to happen until the vines are dormant, probably December for a proactive grower in coastal California, but what one pays for is what one gets.

I’m aware of only one member of the current crew whom I don’t believe MiL has alienated yet. She’s the last middle-aged picker still on the crew, so maybe MiL considers her too old and salty for her managerial harangues. She’s back to haranguing me a bit, though. Maybe I should mention that when she called me back the other week I was in Reno and that I enjoy Reno, even in the summer. Shame I can’t spend more time there because I’m working this shit job, that kind of thing. I’m still taking this flak even though I’m on the cusp of 33 and picking excellent fruit without whining like the little brats on the crew. Most of the crew, honestly, is doing all right and pretty mature, including the teenagers. We’re having trouble with one annoying little brat of twelve, to the point where he’s starting to become our Piggy, and a number of my colleagues have openly asked each other how the brat still has a job there. The owners aren’t exactly treating the brat graciously either, though: they’ve been keeping him in the packinghouse as late as five in the evening at a flat wage of two dollars an hour.

The rest of us are basically doing all right. Even so, MiL got a bee in her bonnet this afternoon about how our productivity was dropping because we were spending too much time talking, and how we’d be more spread out if we were focused on the work. Like hell I was goofing off. I was making poor headway because the fruit was heavy and took a long time to pick. Also, it was kind of hot. What the fuck does she expect of us? Everyone but the little brat is able to talk and pick at the same time, and there’s a strong consensus on the crew by now that it’s appropriate to tell the brat to be quiet. The older lady picker I mentioned above has told him to shut up at least twice. The first time, it was to shut the fuck up. Just today the backup morning supervisor, a really mellow and gracious lady, repeatedly told the little brat to be quiet and stop distracting me. Why he’s still on staff I can’t say. Maybe his parents are juicing Mother and Daughter-in-Law somehow. It’s an incestuous town, or so I hear. One of the minor pickers, a fifteen-year-old who looks and acts twenty, told me that he can’t tell off MiL because she’s an old family friend. She’s the one yelling at both of us, though, so I don’t know what gives, or when. This fifteen-year-old is a mediocre picker, but he’s very well-adjusted and perfectly corrigible, so he’s on the adult side of the prevailing maturity threshold. MiL, however, sees the need to yell at all of us. She probably can’t see how she’s crying wolf and discrediting herself too thoroughly to get through to the bratty fuckheads when they actually deserve to be lectured.

If MiL keeps it up, she may get sued. I’m already bracing myself to have to serve her with pro se legal correspondence demanding a written neutral or positive employment reference from her and advising her that I will file suit if I become aware of any tortious interference. She has clearly established a hostile work environment. What I have personally witnessed is past the threshold of credibility that would keep her lawyers from obtaining summary dismissal on grounds of frivolousness. Modest though the harassment is, we’re all getting harassed on the job by a village blatnoy. MiL probably thinks she can pull rank on anyone who’s of a mind to file suit or report her to regulators because she’s kind of a big deal in town. She’s pretty obviously someone who thinks she knows “how things work around here.” The problem with this line of thinking is that the National Labor Relations Board has superceding national jurisdiction around here, assuming that “here” is within the United States of America, and in this case it is. It could be a bit of a fuckup for a community hen roost to try to overrule the NLRB with its downhome country-ass version of local tyranny. Basically, we’re dealing with one dipshit who’s tacitly threatening to make life miserable for those who cross her. Problem is, doing that to employees don’t go over so well with state and federal regulators, homeskillet.

This is the kind of person who wants to rule your hometown. This is what the sentimentalists are in fact mourning when they bemoan the loss of local control. In real life, control doesn’t devolve from a heartless and cruel central government to some pure, incorruptible Jeffersonian town hivemind, like an issue of Guideposts illustrated by Norman Rockwell; it devolves from a relatively impartial central government to a hopelessly partial local one in the vise grip of endlessly gossiping influence-peddlers, extortionists, and blackmailers. One ends up with Atticus Finch telling the jury that of course what’s-her-name is a Negro-seducing Jezebel, her family is notorious white trash. (Meanwhile everyone’s like OMG he’s a racist. Clutching the pearls over a fictional lawyer turning out to be a racist in the sequel and ignoring real racism against real black people: that’s High Whitey for you.)

Oregon has Mexicans, not blacks, which only looks like it really simplifies things. We gots da white trash, too, and ain’t we got fun on that account. Mother-in-Law wants to lord it over the local trailer spawn on behalf of the Chamber of Commerce. Sure, some of them are unfit employees, but unfit employees can be fired, and she’s slow to actually fire them, or maybe I should say to actually fire us. It’s more that she wants this job to be an object lesson in what a job should be. This is bullshit, of course: decent, self-controlled employers do not yell at employees over minor mistakes and threaten to fire them en masse, and committing serial torts against employees, even minor ones, in order to make some kind of point is batshit crazy and reckless. I’m pretty sure this is one of her motivations, though. She’s that type. What she’s earned with her campaign of self-righteousness against us is the near-total alienation of her crew. She’s alienating people who are naturally disinclined to speak ill of their bosses and who like her when she isn’t yelling at them. This is quite an accomplishment.

I really do not want trouble with her. I just want to pick the fucking fruit. But at some point I may have to tell her that she crossed a bright line in the sand and fucked with the wrong white boy. I’ll be damned if I’ll let her put a retaliatory termination on my record because she was pissed at me over some shit. Beyond a certain point, not standing up to abusive supervisors and reminding them that they are answerable to the courts is a form of moral hazard. MiL has brought all of us appallingly close to that point already. There are reasonable people of goodwill who would say that she has already crossed the Rubicon. I’d rather give her the benefit of the doubt.

For one thing, by my calculation, I still have over $450 to go, i.e., well over a thousand pounds, before I vest my next Social Security credit, and I’m only cautiously hopeful that I’ll get there by the end of the season. The main reason I effectively quit a couple of weeks ago was that I seemed to have just gotten over the $150 threshold for withholding; I’d have put up with another day of yelling to get there, but past $150 I figured I was at least making progress towards the Promised Land. A very tacit agreement from MiL not to yell at me so much was enough to resume the pilgrimage under the same troubled leadership. Rattlesnake speedway in the Utah desert, I pick my money and–fuck it, Tooele County and Box Elder and what have you are doing a lot better than this dump of a county. Salt Lake certainly is, in any event, and as screwy as Mormons are, I can’t concede that they’re more annoying than Washed-in-the-Blood nondenoms like we have in such abundance here. Still, gotta keep my eyes on the prize, baby. At least I give a shit about the national pension system. There are worse reasons to be smug.

If Mother-in-Law goes so flailingly overboard that someone sees an ethical imperative to sue her, though, or if she just pisses someone off beyond the point of no return, it’s not as if she isn’t cruising for a bruising. No two ways about it, she is a shitty manager. I won’t be scratching my head or drowning in tears of sympathy if she finally comes to minor legal grief for years of worst managerial practices, especially when they’re currently getting worse. She’s no saint, and getting jammed up in the courts or the regulatory apparatus over a running campaign of low-level workplace harassment isn’t exactly the martyrdom of St. Jean de Bréboeuf.

Love up on a honky.


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